Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Lectures Delivered in America, by Charles Kingsley (published 1875).
Let me begin this lecture with a scene in the North Atlantic 863 years since.
‘Bjarne Grimolfson was blown with his ship into the Irish Ocean; and there came worms and the ship began to sink under them. They had a boat which they had payed with seals’ blubber, for that the sea-worms will not hurt. But when they got into the boat they saw that it would not hold them all. Then said Bjarne, “As the boat will only hold the half of us, my advice is that we should draw lots who shall go in her; for that will not be unworthy of our manhood.” This advice seemed so good that none gainsaid it; and they drew lots. And the lot fell to Bjarne that he should go in the boat with half his crew. But as he got into the boat, there spake an Icelander who was in the ship and had followed Bjarne from Iceland, “Art thou going to leave me here, Bjarne?” Quoth Bjarne, “So it must be.” Then said the man, “Another thing didst thou promise my father, when I sailed with thee from Iceland, than to desert me thus. For thou saidst that we both should share the same lot.” Bjarne said, “And that we will not do. Get thou down into the boat, and I will get up into the ship, now I see that thou art so greedy after life.” So Bjarne went up into the ship, and the man down into the boat; and the boat went on its voyage till they came to Dublin in Ireland. But most men say that Bjarne and his comrades perished among the worms; for they were never heard of after.’
This story may serve as a text for my whole lecture. Not only does it smack of the sea-breeze and the salt water like all the finest old Norse sagas: but it gives a glimpse at least, of the nobleness which underlay the grim and often cruel nature of the Norseman. It belongs, too, to the culminating epoch, to the beginning of that era when the Scandinavian peoples had their great times; when the old fierceness of the worshippers of Thor and Odin was tempered, without being effeminated by the Faith of the ‘White Christ,’ till the very men who had been the destroyers of Western Europe became its civilisers.
It should have, moreover, a special interest to Americans. For—as American antiquaries are well aware—Bjarne was on his voyage home from the coast of New England; possibly from that very Mount Hope Bay, which seems to have borne the same name in the time of those old Norsemen, as afterwards in the days of King Philip the last sachem of the Wampanoag Indians. He was going back to Greenland, perhaps for reinforcements, finding, he and his fellow-captain, Thorfinn, the Esquimaux who then dwelt in that land too strong for them. For the Norsemen were then on the very edge of a discovery, which might have changed the history not only of this continent but of Europe likewise. They had found and colonised Iceland and Greenland. They had found Labrador, and called it Helluland, from its ice-polished rocks. They had found Nova Scotia seemingly and called it Markland from its woods. They had found New England and called it Vinland the Good. A fair land they found it, well wooded, with good pasturage; so that they had already imported cows, and a bull whose lowings terrified the Esquimaux. They had found self-sown corn too, probably maize. The streams were full of salmon. But they had called the land Vinland, by reason of its grapes. Quaint enough, and bearing in its very quaintness the stamp of truth, is the story of the first finding of the wild fox-grapes. How Leif the Fortunate, almost as soon as he first landed, missed a little wizened old German servant of his father’s, Tyrker by name, and was much vexed thereat, for he had been brought up on the old man’s knee, and hurrying off to find him met Tyrker coming back twisting his eyes about—a trick of his—smacking his lips and talking German to himself in high excitement. And when they get him to talk Norse again, he says, ‘I have not been far, but I have news for you. I have found vines and grapes!’ ‘Is that true, foster-father?’ says Leif. ‘True it is,’ says the old German, ‘for I was brought up where there was never any lack of them.’ The saga—as given by Rafn—has a detailed description of this quaint personage’s appearance; and it would not be amiss if American wine-growers should employ an American sculptor—and there are great American sculptors—to render that description into marble, and set up little Tyrker in some public place, as the Silenus of the New World.
Thus the first cargoes homeward from Vinland to Greenland had been of timber and of raisins, and of vine-stocks which were not like to thrive.
And more. Beyond Vinland the Good there was said to be another land, Whiteman’s Land—or Ireland the Mickle, as some called it. For these Norse traders from Limerick had found Ari Marson, and Ketla of Ruykjanes, supposed to have been long since drowned at sea, and said that the people had made him and Ketla chiefs, and baptised Ari. What is all this? and what is this, too, which the Esquimaux children taken in Markland told the Northmen, of a land beyond them where the folk wore white clothes, and carried flags on poles? Are these all dreams? or was some part of that great civilisation, the relics whereof your antiquarians find in so many parts of the United States, still in existence some 900 years ago; and were these old Norse cousins of ours upon the very edge of it? Be that as it may, how nearly did these fierce Vikings, some of whom seemed to have sailed far south along the shore, become aware that just beyond them lay a land of fruits and spices, gold, and gems? The adverse current of the Gulf Stream, it may be, would have long prevented their getting past the Bahamas into the Gulf of Mexico; but, sooner or later, some storm must have carried a Greenland viking to San Domingo, or to Cuba; and then, as has been well said, some Scandinavian dynasty might have sat upon the throne of Mexico.
These stories are well known to antiquarians. They may be found, almost all of them, in Professor Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanæ. The action in them stands out often so clear and dramatic, that the internal evidence of historic truth is irresistible. Thorvald, who, when he saw what seems to be, they say, the bluff head of Alderton at the south-east end of Boston Bay, said, ‘Here should I like to dwell,’ and, shot by an Esquimaux arrow, bade bury him on that place, with a cross at his head and a cross at his feet, and call the place Cross Ness for evermore; Gudrida, the magnificent widow, who wins hearts and sees strange deeds from Iceland to Greenland, and Greenland to Vinland and back, and at last, worn out and sad, goes off on a pilgrimage to Rome; Helgi and Finnbogi, the Norwegians, who, like our Arctic voyagers in after times, devise all sorts of sports and games to keep the men in humour during the long winter at Hope; and last, but not least, the terrible Freydisa, who when the Norse are seized with a sudden panic at the Esquimaux, and flee from them, as they had three weeks before fled from Thorfinn’s bellowing bull, turns, when so weak that she cannot escape, single-handed on the savages, and catching up a slain man’s sword, puts them all to flight with her fierce visage and fierce cries—Freydisa the Terrible, who, in another voyage, persuades her husband to fall on Helgi and Finnbogi, when asleep, and murder them and all their men; and then, when he will not murder the five women too, takes up an axe and slays them all herself, and getting back to Greenland, when the dark and unexplained tale comes out, lives unpunished, but abhorred henceforth. All these folks, I say, are no phantoms, but realities; at least, if I can judge of internal evidence.
But, beyond them, and hovering on the verge of Mythus and fairy land, there is a ballad called ‘Finn the Fair,’ and how
An upland Earl had twa braw sons,
My story to begin;
The tane was hight Haldane the strong,
The tither was winsome Finn.
and so forth; which was still sung, with other ‘rimur,’ or ballads, in the Faroes, at the end of the last century. Professor Rafn has inserted it, because it talks of Vinland as a well-known place, and because the brothers are sent by the princess to slay American kings; but that Rime has another value.
It is of a beauty so perfect, and yet so like the old Scotch ballads in its heroic conception of love, and in all its forms and its qualities, that it is one proof more, to any student of early European poetry, that we and these old Norsemen are men of the same blood. Your own Professor Longfellow may know it far better than I, who am no Norse scholar. But, if he does, might I beg him to translate it some day, as none but he can translate? It is so sad, that no tenderness less exquisite than his can prevent its being painful; and, at least in its denouement, so naive, that no purity less exquisite than his can prevent its being dreadful. But the Rime is as worthy of Mr. Longfellow as he is worthy of the Rime.
If anything more important than is told by Professor Rafn and Mr. Black be now known to the antiquarians of Massachussets, let me entreat them to pardon my ignorance. But let me record my opinion that, though somewhat too much may have been made in past years of certain rock-inscriptions, and so forth, on this side of the Atlantic, there can be no reasonable doubt that our own race landed and tried to settle on the shore of New England six hundred years before their kinsmen, and, in many cases, their actual descendants, the august Pilgrim Fathers of the 17th century. And so, as I said, a Scandinavian dynasty might have been seated now upon the throne of Mexico. And how was that strange chance lost? First, of course, by the length and danger of the coasting voyage. It was one thing to have, like Columbus and Vespucci, Cortes and Pizarro, the Azores as a half-way port; another to have Greenland, or even Iceland. It was one thing to run South West upon Columbus’ track, across the Mar de Damas, the Ladies Sea, which hardly knows a storm, with the blazing blue above, the blazing blue below, in an ever-warming climate, where every breath is life and joy; another to struggle against the fogs and icebergs, the rocks and currents, of the dreary North Atlantic. No wonder, then, that the knowledge of Markland, and Vinland, and Whiteman’s Land died away in a few generations, and became but fire-side sagas for the winter nights.
But there were other causes, more honourable to the dogged energy of the Norse. They were in those very years conquering and settling nearer home as no other people—unless, perhaps, the old Ionian Greeks, conquered and settled.
Greenland, we have seen, they held—the western side at least—and held it long and well enough to afford, it is said, 2,600 pounds of walrus’ teeth as yearly tithe to the Pope, besides Peter’s pence, and to build many a convent, and church, and cathedral, with farms and homesteads round; for one saga speaks of Greenland as producing wheat of the finest quality. All is ruined now, perhaps by gradual change of climate.
But they had richer fields of enterprise than Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroes. Their boldest outlaws at that very time—whether from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, or Britain—were forming the imperial life-guard of the Byzantine Emperor, as the once famous Varangers of Constantinople; and that splendid epoch of their race was just dawning, of which my lamented friend, the late Sir Edmund Head, says so well in his preface to Viga Glum’s Icelandic Saga, ‘The Sagas, of which this tale is one, were composed for the men who have left their mark in every corner of Europe; and whose language and laws are at this moment important elements in the speech and institutions of England, America, and Australia. There is no page of modern history in which the influence of the Norsemen and their conquests must not be taken into account—Russia, Constantinople, Greece, Palestine, Sicily, the coasts of Africa, Southern Italy, France, the Spanish Peninsula, England, Scotland, Ireland, and every rock and island round them, have been visited, and most of them at one time or the other ruled, by the men of Scandinavia. The motto on the sword of Roger Guiscard was a proud one:
Appulus et Calaber, Siculus mihi servit et Afer.’
Every island, says Sir Edmund Head, and truly—for the name of almost every island on the coast of England, Scotland, and Eastern Ireland, ends in either ey or ay or oe, a Norse appellative, as is the word island itself—is a mark of its having been, at some time or other, visited by the Vikings of Scandinavia.
Norway, meanwhile, was convulsed by war; and what perhaps was of more immediate consequence, Svend Fork-beard, whom we Englishmen call Sweyn—the renegade from that Christian Faith which had been forced on him by his German conqueror, the Emperor Otto II.—with his illustrious son Cnut, whom we call Canute, were just calling together all the most daring spirits of the Baltic coasts for the subjugation of England; and when that great feat was performed, the Scandinavian emigration was paralysed, probably, for a time by the fearful wars at home. While the King of Sweden, and St. Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway, were setting on Denmark during Cnut’s pilgrimage to Rome, and Cnut, sailing with a mighty fleet to Norway, was driving St. Olaf into Russia, to return and fall in the fratricidal battle of Stiklestead—during, strangely enough, a total eclipse of the sun—Vinland was like enough to remain still uncolonised. After Cnut’s short-lived triumph—king as he was of Denmark, Norway, England, and half Scotland, and what not of Wendish Folk inside the Baltic—the force of the Norsemen seems to have been exhausted in their native lands. Once more only, if I remember right, did ‘Lochlin,’ really and hopefully send forth her ‘mailed swarm’ to conquer a foreign land; and with a result unexpected alike by them and by their enemies. Had it been otherwise, we might not have been here this day.
Let me sketch for you once more—though you have heard it, doubtless, many a time—the tale of that tremendous fortnight which settled the fate of Britain, and therefore of North America; which decided—just in those great times when the decision was to be made—whether we should be on a par with the other civilised nations of Europe, like them the ‘heirs of all the ages,’ with our share not only of Roman Christianity and Roman centralisation—a member of the great comity of European nations, held together in one Christian bond by the Pope—but heirs also of Roman civilisation, Roman literature, Roman law; and therefore, in due time, of Greek philosophy and art. No less a question than this, it seems to me, hung in the balance during that fortnight of autumn, 1066.
Poor old Edward the Confessor, holy, weak, and sad, lay in his new choir of Westminster—where the wicked ceased from troubling, and the weary were at rest. The crowned ascetic had left no heir behind. England seemed as a corpse, to which all the eagles might gather together; and the South-English, in their utter need, had chosen for their king the ablest, and it may be the justest, man in Britain—Earl Harold Godwinsson: himself, like half the upper classes of England then, of the all-dominant Norse blood; for his mother was a Danish princess. Then out of Norway, with a mighty host, came Harold Hardraade, taller than all men, the ideal Viking of his time. Half-brother of the now dead St. Olaf, severely wounded when he was but fifteen, at Stiklestead, when Olaf fell, he had warred and plundered on many a coast. He had been away to Russia to King Jaroslaf; he had been in the Emperor’s Varanger guard at Constantinople—and, it was whispered, had slain a lion there with his bare hands; he had carved his name and his comrades’ in Runic characters—if you go to Venice you may see them at this day—on the loins of the great marble lion, which stood in his time not in Venice but in Athens. And now, king of Norway and conqueror, for the time, of Denmark, why should he not take England, as Sweyn and Canute took it sixty years before, when the flower of the English gentry perished at the fatal battle of Assingdune? If he and his half-barbarous host had conquered, the civilisation of Britain would have been thrown back, perhaps, for centuries. But it was not to be.
England was to be conquered by the Norman; but by the civilised, not the barbaric; by the Norse who had settled, but four generations before, in the North East of France under Rou, Rollo, Rolf the Ganger—so-called, they say, because his legs were so long that, when on horseback, he touched the ground and seemed to gang, or walk. He and his Norsemen had taken their share of France, and called it Normandy to this day; and meanwhile, with that docility and adaptability which marks so often truly great spirits, they had changed their creed, their language, their habits, and had become, from heathen and murderous Berserkers, the most truly civilised people of Europe, and—as was most natural then—the most faithful allies and servants of the Pope of Rome. So greatly had they changed, and so fast, that William Duke of Normandy, the great-great-grandson of Rolf the wild Viking, was perhaps the finest gentleman, as well as the most cultivated sovereign, and the greatest statesman and warrior, in all Europe.
So Harold of Norway came with all his Vikings to Stamford Bridge by York; and took, by coming, only that which Harold of England promised him, namely, ‘forasmuch as he was taller than any other man, seven feet of English ground.’
The story of that great battle, told with a few inaccuracies, but told as only great poets tell, you should read, if you have not read it already, in the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson, the Homer of the North—
High feast that day held the birds of the air and the beasts of the field,
White-tailed erne and sallow glede,
Dusky raven, with horny neb,
And the grey deer, the wolf of the wood.
The bones of the slain, men say, whitened the place for fifty years to come.
And remember, that on the same day on which that fight befell—Sept. 27, 1066—William, Duke of Normandy, with all his French-speaking Norsemen, was sailing across the British Channel, under the protection of a banner consecrated by the Pope, to conquer that England which the Norse-speaking Normans could not conquer.
And now King Harold showed himself a man. He turned at once from the North of England to the South. He raised the folk of the Southern, as he had raised those of the Central and Northern shires; and in sixteen days—after a march which in those times was a prodigious feat—he was entrenched upon the fatal down which men called Heathfield then, and Senlac, but Battle to this day—with William and his French Normans opposite him on Telham hill.
Then came the battle of Hastings. You all know what befell upon that day; and how the old weapon was matched against the new—the English axe against the Norman lance—and beaten only because the English broke their ranks. If you wish to refresh your memories, read the tale once more in Mr. Freeman’s History of England, or Prof. Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, or even, best of all, the late Lord Lytton’s splendid romance of Harold. And when you go to England, go, as some of you may have gone already, to Battle; and there from off the Abbey grounds, or from Mountjoy behind, look down off what was then ‘The Heathy Field,’ over the long slopes of green pasture and the rich hop-gardens, where were no hop-gardens then, and the flat tide-marshes winding between the wooded heights, towards the southern sea; and imagine for yourselves the feelings of an Englishman as he contemplates that broad green sloping lawn, on which was decided the destiny of his native land. Here, right beneath, rode Taillefer up the slope before them all, singing the song of Roland, tossing his lance in air and catching it as it fell, with all the Norse berserker spirit of his ancestors flashing out in him, at the thought of one fair fight, and then purgatory, or Valhalla—Taillefer perhaps preferred the latter. Yonder on the left, in that copse where the red-ochre gully runs, is Sanguelac, the drain of blood, into which (as the Bayeux tapestry, woven by Matilda’s maids, still shows) the Norman knights fell, horse and man, till the gully was bridged with writhing bodies for those who rode after. Here, where you stand—the crest of the hill marks where it must have been—was the stockade on which depended the fate of England. Yonder, perhaps, stalked out one English squire or house-carle after another: tall men with long-handled battle-axes—one specially terrible, with a wooden helmet which no sword could pierce—who hewed and hewed down knight on knight, till they themselves were borne to earth at last. And here, among the trees and ruins of the garden, kept trim by those who know the treasure which they own, stood Harold’s two standards of the fighting man and the dragon of Wessex. And here, close by (for here, for many a century, stood the high altar of Battle Abbey, where monks sang masses for Harold’s soul), upon this very spot the Swan-neck found her hero lover’s corpse. ‘Ah,’ says many an Englishman—and who will blame him for it—‘how grand to have died beneath that standard on that day!’ Yes, and how right. And yet how right, likewise, that the Norman’s cry of Dexaie, ‘God Help,’ and not the English hurrah, should have won that day, till William rode up Mountjoye in the afternoon to see the English army, terrible even in defeat, struggling through copse and marsh away toward Brede, and, like retreating lions driven into their native woods, slaying more in the pursuit than they slew even in the fight.
But so it was to be; for so it ought to have been. You, my American friends, delight, as I have said already, in seeing the old places of the old country. Go, I beg you, and look at that old place, and if you be wise, you will carry back from it one lesson: that God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts; nor His ways as our ways.
It was a fearful time which followed. I cannot but believe that our forefathers had been, in some way or other, great sinners, or two such conquests as Canute’s and William’s would not have fallen on them within the short space of sixty years. They did not want for courage, as Stanford Brigg and Hastings showed full well. English swine, their Norman conquerors called them often enough; but never English cowards. Their ruinous vice, if we are to trust the records of the time, was what the old monks called accidia—ἀχηδία—and ranked it as one of the seven deadly sins: a general careless, sleepy, comfortable habit of mind, which lets all go its way for good or evil—a habit of mind too often accompanied, as in the case of the Anglo-Danes, with self-indulgence, often coarse enough. Huge eaters and huger drinkers, fuddled with ale, were the men who went down at Hastings—though they went down like heroes—before the staid and sober Norman out of France.
But those were fearful times. As long as William lived, ruthless as he was to all rebels, he kept order and did justice with a strong and steady hand; for he brought with him from Normandy the instincts of a truly great statesman. And in his sons’ time matters grew worse and worse. After that, in the troubles of Stephen’s reign, anarchy let loose tyranny in its most fearful form, and things were done which recall the cruelties of the old Spanish conquistadores in America. Scott’s charming romance of Ivanhoe must be taken, I fear, as a too true picture of English society in the time of Richard I.
And what came of it all? What was the result of all this misery and wrong?
This, paradoxical as it may seem—that the Norman conquest was the making of the English people; of the Free Commons of England.
Paradoxical, but true. First, you must dismiss from your minds the too common notion that there is now, in England a governing Norman aristocracy, or that there has been one, at least since the year 1215, when Magna Charta was won from the Norman John by Normans and by English alike. For the first victors at Hastings, like the first conquistadores in America, perished, as the monk chronicles point out, rapidly by their own crimes; and very few of our nobility can trace their names back to the authentic Battle Abbey roll. The great majority of the peers have sprung from, and all have intermarried with, the Commons; and the peerage has been from the first, and has become more and more as centuries have rolled on, the prize of success in life.
The cause is plain. The conquest of England by the Normans was not one of those conquests of a savage by a civilised race, or of a cowardly race by a brave race, which results in the slavery of the conquered, and leaves the gulf of caste between two races, master and slave. That was the case in France, and resulted, after centuries of oppression, in the great and dreadful revolution of 1793, which convulsed not only France but the whole civilised world. But caste, thank God, has never existed in England, since at least the first generation after the Norman conquest.
The vast majority, all but the whole population of England, have been always free; and free, as they are not where caste exists, to change their occupations. They could intermarry, if they were able men, into the ranks above them; as they did sink, if they were unable men, into the ranks below them. Any man acquainted with the origin of our English surnames may verify this fact for himself, by looking at the names of a single parish or a single street of shops. There, jumbled together, he will find names marking the noblest Saxon or Angle blood—Kenward or Kenric, Osgood or Osborne, side by side with Cordery or Banister—now names of farmers in my own parish—or other Norman-French names which may be, like those two last, in Battle Abbey roll—and side by side the almost ubiquitous Brown, whose ancestor was probably some Danish or Norwegian housecarle, proud of his name Biorn the bear, and the ubiquitous Smith or Smythe, the smiter, whose forefather, whether he now be peasant or peer, assuredly handled the tongs and hammer at his own forge. This holds true equally in New England and in Old. When I search through (as I delight to do) your New England surnames, I find the same jumble of names—West Saxon, Angle, Danish, Norman, and French-Norman likewise, many of primæval and heathen antiquity, many of high nobility, all worked together, as at home, to form the Free Commoners of England.
If any should wish to know more on this curious and important subject, let me recommend them to study Ferguson’s Teutonic Name System, a book from which you will discover that some of our quaintest, and seemingly most plebeian surnames—many surnames, too, which are extinct in England, but remain in America—are really corruptions of good old Teutonic names, which our ancestors may have carried in the German Forest, before an Englishman set foot on British soil; from which he will rise with the comfortable feeling that we English-speaking men, from the highest to the lowest, are literally kinsmen. Nay, so utterly made up now is the old blood-feud between Norseman and Englishman, between the descendants of those who conquered and those who were conquered, that in the children of our Prince of Wales, after 800 years, the blood of William of Normandy is mingled with the blood of the very Harold who fell at Hastings. And so, by the bitter woes which followed the Norman conquest was the whole population, Dane, Angle, and Saxon, earl and churl, freeman and slave, crushed and welded together into one homogeneous mass, made just and merciful towards each other by the most wholesome of all teachings, a community of suffering; and if they had been, as I fear they were, a lazy and a sensual people, were taught
That life is not as idle ore,
But heated hot with burning fears,
And bathed in baths of hissing tears,
And battered with the strokes of doom
To shape and use.
But how did these wild Vikings become Christian men? It is a long story. So staunch a race was sure to be converted only very slowly. Noble missionaries as Ansgar, Rembert, and Poppo, had worked for 150 years and more among the heathens of Denmark. But the patriotism of the Norseman always recoiled, even though in secret, from the fact that they were German monks, backed by the authority of the German emperor; and many a man, like Svend Fork-beard, father of the great Canute, though he had the Kaiser himself for godfather, turned heathen once more, the moment he was free, because his baptism was the badge of foreign conquest, and neither pope nor Kaiser should lord it over him, body or soul. St. Olaf, indeed, forced Christianity on the Norse at the sword’s point, often by horrid cruelties, and perished in the attempt. But who forced it on the Norsemen of Scotland, England, Ireland, Neustria, Russia, and all the Eastern Baltic? It was absorbed and in most cases, I believe, gradually and willingly, as a gospel and good news to hearts worn out with the storm of their own passions. And whence came their Christianity? Much of it, as in the case of the Danes, and still more of the French Normans, came direct from Rome, the city which, let them defy its influence as they would, was still the fount of all theology, as well as of all civilisation. But I must believe that much of it came from that mysterious ancient Western Church, the Church of St. Patric, St. Bridget, St. Columba, which had covered with rude cells and chapels the rocky islets of the North Atlantic, even to Iceland itself. Even to Iceland; for when that island was first discovered, about a.d. 840, the Norsemen found in an isle, on the east and west and elsewhere, Irish books and bells and wooden crosses, and named that island Papey, the isle of the popes—some little colony of monks, who lived by fishing, and who are said to have left the land when the Norsemen settled in it. Let us believe, for it is consonant with reason and experience, that the sight of those poor monks, plundered and massacred again and again by the ‘mailed swarms of Lochlin,’ yet never exterminated, but springing up again in the same place, ready for fresh massacre, a sacred plant which God had planted, and which no rage of man could trample out—let us believe, I say, that that sight taught at last to the buccaneers of the old world that there was a purer manliness, a loftier heroism, than the ferocious self-assertion of the Berserker, even the heroism of humility, gentleness, self-restraint, self-sacrifice. That there was a strength which was made perfect in weakness; a glory, not of the sword but of the cross. We will believe that that was the lesson which the Norsemen learnt, after many a wild and bloodstained voyage, from the monks of Iona or of Derry, which caused the building of such churches as that which Sightrys, king of Dublin, raised about the year 1030, not in the Norse but in the Irish quarter of Dublin: a sacred token of amity between the new settlers and the natives on the ground of a common faith. Let us believe, too, that the influence of woman was not wanting in the good work—that the story of St. Margaret and Malcolm Canmore was repeated, though inversely, in the case of many a heathen Scandinavian jarl, who, marrying the princely daughter of some Scottish chieftain, found in her creed at last something more precious than herself; while his brother or his cousin became, at Dublin or Wexford or Waterford, the husband of some saffron-robed Irish princess, ‘fair as an elf,’ as the old saying was; ‘some maiden of the three transcendent hues,’ of whom the old book of Linane says—
Red as the blood which flowed from stricken deer,
White as the snow on which that blood ran down,
Black as the raven who drank up that blood.
—and possibly, as in the case of Brian Boru’s mother, had given his fair-haired sister in marriage to some Irish prince, and could not resist the spell of their new creed, and the spell too, it may be, of some sister of theirs who had long given up all thought of earthly marriage to tend the undying fire of St. Bridget among the consecrated virgins of Kildare.
I am not drawing from mere imagination. That such things must have happened, and happened again and again, is certain to anyone who knows, even superficially, the documents of that time. And I doubt not that, in manners as well as in religion, the Norse were humanised and civilised by their contact with the Celts, both in Scotland and in Ireland, Both peoples had valour, intellect, imagination: but the Celt had that which the burly angular Norse character, however deep and stately, and however humorous, wanted; namely, music of nature, tenderness, grace, rapidity, playfulness; just the qualities, combining with the Scandinavian (and in Scotland with the Angle) elements of character which have produced, in Ireland and in Scotland, two schools of lyric poetry second to none in the world.
And so they were converted to what was then a dark and awful creed; a creed of ascetic self-torture and purgatorial fires for those who escaped the still more dreadful, because endless, doom of the rest of the human race. But, because it was a sad creed, it suited better men, who had, when conscience reawakened in them, but too good reason to be sad; and the minsters and cloisters which sprang up over the whole of Northern Europe, and even beyond it, along the dreary western shores of Greenland itself, are the symbols of a splendid repentance for their own sins and for the sins of their forefathers.
Gudruna herself, of whom I spoke just now, one of those old Norse heroines who helped to discover America, though a historic personage, is a symbolic one likewise, and the pattern of a whole class. She, too, after many journeys to Iceland, Greenland, and Winland, goes on a pilgrimage to Rome, to get, I presume, absolution from the Pope himself for all the sins of her strange, rich, stormy, wayward life.
Have you not read—many of you surely have—La Motte Fouqué’s Romance of Sintram? It embodies all that I would say. It is the spiritual drama of that early middle age; very sad, morbid if you will, but true to fact. The Lady Verena ought not, perhaps, to desert her husband, and shut herself up in a cloister. But so she would have done in those old days. And who shall judge her harshly for so doing? When the brutality of the man seems past all cure, who shall blame the woman if she glides away into some atmosphere of peace and purity, to pray for him whom neither warnings nor caresses will amend? It is a sad book, Sintram. And yet not too sad. For they were a sad people, those old Norse forefathers of ours. Their Christianity was sad; their minsters sad; there are few sadder, though few grander, buildings than a Norman church.
And yet, perhaps, their Christianity did not make them sad. It was but the other and the healthier side of that sadness which they had as heathens. Read which you will of the old sagas—heathen or half-Christian—the Eyrbiggia, Viga Glum, Burnt Niall, Grettir the Strong, and, above all, Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla itself—and you will see at once how sad they are. There is, in the old sagas, none of that enjoyment of life which shines out everywhere in Greek poetry, even through its deepest tragedies. Not in complacency with Nature’s beauty, but in the fierce struggle with her wrath, does the Norseman feel pleasure. Nature to him was not, as in Mr. Longfellow’s exquisite poem, the kind old nurse, to take him on her knee and whisper to him, ever anew, the story without an end. She was a weird witch-wife, mother of storm demons and frost giants, who must be fought with steadily, warily, wearily, over dreary heaths and snow-capped fells, and rugged nesses and tossing sounds, and away into the boundless sea—or who could live?—till he got hardened in the fight into ruthlessness of need and greed. The poor strip of flat strath, ploughed and re-ploughed again in the short summer days, would yield no more; or wet harvests spoiled the crops, or heavy snows starved the cattle. And so the Norseman launched his ships when the lands were sown in spring, and went forth to pillage or to trade, as luck would have, to summerted, as he himself called it; and came back, if he ever came, in autumn to the women to help at harvest-time, with blood upon his hand. But had he staid at home, blood would have been there still. Three out of four of them had been mixed up in some man-slaying, or had some blood-feud to avenge among their own kin.
The whole of Scandinavia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Orkney, and the rest, remind me ever of that terrible picture of the great Norse painter, Tiddeman, in which two splendid youths, lashed together, in true Norse duel fashion by the waist, are hewing each other to death with the short axe, about some hot words over their ale. The loss of life, and that of the most gallant of the young, in those days must have been enormous. If the vitality of the race had not been even more enormous, they must have destroyed each other, as the Red Indians have done, off the face of the earth. They lived these Norsemen, not to live—they lived to die. For what cared they? Death—what was death to them! what it was to the Jomsburger Viking, who, when led out to execution, said to the headsman, ‘Die! with all pleasure. We used to question in Jomsburg whether a man felt when his head was off? Now I shall know; but if I do, take care, for I shall smite thee with my knife. And meanwhile, spoil not this long hair of mine; it is so beautiful.’
But, oh! what waste. What might not these men have done if they had sought peace, not war; if they had learned a few centuries sooner to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God?
And yet one loves them, blood-stained as they are. Your own poets, men brought up under circumstances, under ideas the most opposite to theirs, love them, and cannot help it. And why? It is not merely for their bold daring, it is not merely for their stern endurance; nor again that they had in them that shift and thrift, those steady and common-sense business habits, which made their noblest men not ashamed to go on voyages of merchandise. Nor is it, again, that grim humour—humour as of the modern Scotch—which so often flashes out into an actual jest, but more usually underlies unspoken all their deeds. Is it not rather that these men are our forefathers? that their blood runs in the veins of perhaps three men out of four in any general assembly, whether in America or in Britain? Startling as the assertion may be, I believe it to be strictly true.
Be that as it may, I cannot read the stories of your western men, the writings of Bret Harte, or Colonel John Hay, for instance, without feeling at every turn that there are the old Norse alive again, beyond the very ocean which they first crossed, 850 years ago.
Let me try to prove my point, and end with a story, as I began with one.
It is just 30 years before the Norman conquest of England, the evening of the battle of Sticklestead. St. Olaf’s corpse is still lying unburied on the hillside. The reforming and Christian king has fallen in the attempt to force Christianity and despotism on the Conservative and half-heathen party—the free bonders or yeoman-farmers of Norway. Thormod, his poet,—the man, as his name means, of thunder mood—who has been standing in the ranks, at last has an arrow in his left side. He breaks off the shaft, and thus sore wounded goes up, when all is lost, to a farm where is a great barn full of wounded. One Kimbe comes, a man out of the opposite or bonder part. ‘There is great howling and screaming in there,’ he says. ‘King Olaf’s men fought bravely enough: but it is a shame brisk young lads cannot bear their wounds. On what side wert thou in the fight?’ ‘On the best side,’ says the beaten Thormod. Kimbe sees that Thormod has a gold bracelet on his arm. ‘Thou art surely a king’s man. Give me thy gold ring and I will hide thee, ere the bonders kill thee.’
Thormod said, ‘Take it, if thou canst get it. I have lost that which is worth more;’ and he stretched out his left hand, and Kimbe tried to take it. But Thormod, swinging his sword, cut off his hand; and it is said Kimbe behaved no better over his wound than those he had been blaming.
Then Thormod went into the barn; and after he had sung his song there in praise of his dead king, he went into an inner room, where was a fire, and water warming, and a handsome girl binding up men’s wounds. And he sat down by the door; and one said to him ‘Why art thou so dead pale? Why dost thou not call for the leech?’ Then sung Thormod—
I am not blooming; and the fair
And slender maiden loves to care
For blooming youths. Few care for me,
With Fenri’s gold meal I can’t fee;
and so forth, improvising after the old Norse fashion.
Then Thormod got up and went to the fire, and stood and warmed himself. And the nurse-girl said to him, ‘Go out man, and bring some of the split-firewood which lies outside the door.’ He went out and brought an armful of wood and threw it down. Then the nurse-girl looked him in the face and said, ‘Dreadful pale is this man. Why art thou so?’ Then sang Thormod—
Thou wonderest, sweet bloom, at me,
A man so hideous to see.
The arrow-drift o’ertook me, girl,
A fine-ground arrow in the whirl
Went through me, and I feel the dart
Sits, lovely lass, too near my heart.
The girl said, ‘Let me see thy wound.’ Then Thormod sat down, and the girl saw his wounds, and that which was in his side, and saw that there was a piece of iron in it; but could not tell where it had gone. In a stone pot she had leeks and other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to eat. But Thormod said, ‘Take it away; I have no appetite now for my broth.’ Then she took a great pair of tongs and tried to pull out the iron; but the wound was swelled, and there was too little to lay hold of. Now said Thormod, ‘Cut in so deep that thou canst get at the iron, and give me the tongs.’ She did as he said. Then took Thormod the gold bracelet off his hand and gave it the nurse-girl, and bade her do with it what she liked.
‘It is a good man’s gift,’ said he. ‘King Olaf gave me the ring this morning.’
Then Thormod took the tongs and pulled the iron out. But on the iron was a barb, on which hung flesh from the heart, some red, some white. When he saw that, he said, ‘The king has fed us well. I am fat, even to the heart’s roots.’ And so leant back and was dead.
I shall not insult your intelligence by any comment or even epithet of my own. I shall but ask you was not this man your kinsman? Does not the story sound, allowing for all change of manners as well as of time and place, like a scene out of your own Bret Harte or Colonel John Hay’s writings; a scene of p. 97the dry humour the rough heroism of your own far West? Yes, as long as you have your Jem Bludsos and Tom Flynns of Virginia City, the old Norse blood is surely not extinct, the old Norse spirit is not dead.